Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Writing a Check (But Were Afraid to Ask)

March 23, 2018

Writing a check may feel like it's becoming a lost art — but the truth is that even in the age of digital financial transfers, paper checks remain a popular, easy and important way to make payments.

If you're new to check writing, or if you need a brush-up that includes smart ways to safeguard your checks from fraud, here's everything you ever needed to know about writing a check (but were afraid to ask):

How do I write a check?

As you can see in our example above, there are several places on a check where you need to add information. Always use a pen — not a pencil — to write a check because it's your first line of defense in making your check tamper-proof. A thief can easily erase pencil and change payee names, amount of the check, etc.

From the top of the check down, here's how to fill out a check:

1. Make sure your name and address are on the check (upper left hand corner): It makes life easier to have your name and address pre-printed on your checks. If you are likely to move, you can skip pre-printing the address and just have the check company put your name if you are the sole person on the account. If you have a joint account, you'll list both names here. Having your address on a check is technically optional, but many merchants will want or expect to see it. You can always write your current address on the check.

2. Fill in the date (upper right hand corner): You have a couple of options with the date: either use the current date (most common) or, if you are giving a vendor a check to cash in the future, you can "postdate" it. Keep in mind, though, that postdating a check can have complications. For example, if you forget you postdated a check, you may also forget to check to be sure you have enough money in your account to cover it when your payee eventually cashes it. Ideally, you should write and date a check the same day you're making the payment.

3. Write in the name of the person or entity you're paying ("pay to the order of" space): Write out the full name of the person or place you're paying, such as "Beautiful Properties, Incorporated" on our example check. Also, don't just assume who the check should be made out to — you may need to ask the legal name of the individual or business you're paying, otherwise they might not be able to deposit your check. If you don't know the name or if you want to write a check to yourself, you can simply make a check out to "cash."

Safety tip: While it does simplify the check writing process somewhat by making it out to "cash," it can create other issues if the check is lost or stolen. By not specifying a payee, technically anyone can cash your check. And unlike other types of fraud, such as credit card, getting your money back is a complicated process that involves taking legal action.

5. Write out the amount in all numbers (just below the date): Here you'll write in numerical the amount of the dollars and cents you're paying.

Safety tip: Put the furthest number to the left flush up against the left-hand side of the box. This makes it harder for anyone to alter that number. Also do your best to have the numbers fill the enter space in the box — again, it makes it difficult to change any numbers that way.

6. Write out the amount in words (line under "pay to the order of"): Write out the dollar amount in words (i.e. "FOUR HUNDRED FIFTY AND) and the cents amount as a fraction out of 100 (i.e. 50/100). Do your best to write legibly, because this amount is the official amount of the check. Even if you accidentally put a different numerical amount in the box, this is the amount the bank will withdraw from your checking account.

Safety tip: Start the first word all the way to the left, and use all caps. This complicates a thief's attempt at changing the amount of the payment. Additionally, if you have any space left after you write out the amount, put a line there so no additional information/amount can be written in.

7. Sign the check (bottom right hand corner): In order for your check to be valid, you must sign it. Again, be as clear and legible as possible. Also, be sure to sign the check with the name your bank account is under. For example, if Jane Smith normally goes by her middle name, but her middle name is not on her checking account, she still needs to sign the check with her first (and last) name.

Safety tip: Make sure your signature is reasonably consistent. One way banks detect fraud is through inconsistent or wildly different signatures.

8. Add a memo (optional, bottom left hand corner): The memo is for unofficial reference only and doesn't affect whether or not the check can be cashed or not. You can use it to remind yourself of what the payment was for, or you can also use that space to tell the payee more details about the payment. This can include things like invoice, your rental unit, or account number when you're paying bills.

What is a routing number, and where can I find it?

In the bottom left-hand corner of your personal check under the memo line, you'll see a routing number. This nine-digit number identifies the location where you opened your bank account. Other names for this number is RTN, routing transit number or ABA routing number. (It's worth noting that the numbers at the bottom of a check will differ if the account is a business vs. personal account.)

What is the number next to the routing number on the bottom of my check and what's it used for?

The number directly to the right of the routing or ABA number is your bank account number, which is normally nine or ten digits. This number tells the institution that's cashing the check from where to withdraw funds.

There's also a number in the top right hand corner of my check that's the same as the number on the bottom of the check to the right of the account number. What is it, and why do I need it?

That number is the check number (in our example, it's 5719). The check number is not only the sequential order of your check, but also an important number to record in your check register.

What's a check register?

You'll want to keep track of the checks you write for a handy reference if you're trying to remember to whom/when you wrote a certain check, and also to be sure that you're not missing any checks. When you get your checks in the first place, the bank should provide you with a register. In it, you'll see that for each check, there's a place to enter the date, check number, payee name, and amount of the check. Every time you write a check, you'll want to be sure to note that information in your register.

What if I mess up when I write a check?

If you accidentally write the wrong information on a check, you can make it invalid by writing "VOID" in big letters across the middle of it. Then either file that check away as a reminder OR tear it up into tiny pieces or shred it before otherwise disposing of it.

Safety tip: It might feel like overkill to void or destroy a check that wasn't written correctly in the first place, but you don't want any checks -- not even ones with errors on them -- to get into the wrong hands. Voiding the check is a good first step, because it keeps a thief from altering any information in the payee or amount fields. Filing the check away or carefully destroying it adds another level of protection, because crooks can use your routing and account numbers to open online accounts and steal from you that way. Never just crumple up and throw away a check that has mistakes on it.

What happens when someone gives me a check?

When you get a check, all you need to cash or deposit it is to endorse it. You do this by flipping the check over vertically, and then signing the top of it. Many checks have a specific space for you to sign it, so look for that. Also, when someone gives you a check as a gift or to pay you for something, don't just let it sit there. Thanks to the Universal Commercial code, banks don't have to cash checks that are over six months old. So that check your grandma gave you for your birthday two years ago is technically expired — and it's unlikely that a bank will cash or deposit it.

Anything else I should know about writing a check?

Make sure you have enough money in your bank account to cover any check your write — and if you write an especially large check that doesn't get cashed right away, just know that when the payee does finally cash it, you're still responsible for covering it. If a check bounces, which means that there aren't enough funds in your account to cover it, you'll be charged hefty fees and potentially could risk having legal action taken against you.

Checks provide a clear paper trail that make it easy for you keep track of purchases, and they also include important banking information, too. Beyond the convenience of checks, there are still plenty of businesses that prefer or even require checks, so knowing how to write them properly and safely is a great way to keep your financials in, well, check.